Opinion/Column by R. K. Ramazani (First published by The Daily Progress on January 3, 2016)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York in September 2015
(photo by Islamic Republic News Agency)
After years of discussion, Iran’s nuclear agreement of July reached a turning point last week on Dec. 28. A Russian shipment carried almost all of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium out of the country, a major step toward implementing the nuclear deal struck last summer. For the first time in nearly a decade, Iran was left with too little fuel to manufacture a nuclear weapon.
Secretary of State John Kerry called it “one of the most significant steps Iran has taken toward fulfilling its commitment.” On implementation day, roughly $100 billion in Iranian assets will be unfrozen, and the country will be free to sell oil on world markets and operate in the world financial system.
At the same time, Iraqi forces backed by American airstrikes reportedly recaptured central Ramadi, a provincial capital 60 miles from Baghdad, overrun by the Islamic State seven months ago. It is estimated that the Islamic State’s control of Iraqi territory has shrunk by 40 percent since last year.
President Obama has increased the level of American troops in Iraq to 3,500; and since July, the United States-led coalition has supported Iraqi troops with 630 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in and around Ramadi. The United States and its coalition allies have pledged $50 million to the newly liberated city.
But a single military victory by Iraqi forces isn’t the whole story: The raised morale of the Iraqi security forces would seem to point toward the recapture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Such a victory could well lead to the destruction of the Islamic State and its propaganda instruments.
Since the United States and Iran are two of the leading opponents of the Islamic State, these concurrent events - the first important step toward implementing the nuclear deal and the first significant victory of the U.S. plan for defeating the Islamic State - may signal a shift in the seemingly unstoppable momentum toward an ever grimmer state of affairs in the Middle East.
Iran’s willingness to engage diplomatically, despite its revolutionary ideology, is not altogether new. Even at the height of the Iranian hostage crisis (1979-1981), the founding father of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, admonished the Islamic zealots who objected to his decision to establish relations with Turkey and Germany.
He said that establishing relations with other countries is compatible not only with the Islamic prophetic tradition but also with Iranian national interests. Failure to establish relations, he warned sternly, would mean “defeat and annihilation” for Iran.
Contrary to the assumption that Khomeini forbade talk with America, he left the door open to negotiations, indicating Iran’s willingness to resume relations with the United States “if America behaves itself” ( agar adam beshavad ) - that is, if America refrained from attempting to dominate Iran.
Given the many distrustful pronouncements by Ayatollah Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran, it is sometimes assumed that he wishes for no relations with the United States. Yet, as a matter of fact, when he endorsed Hassan Ruhani as prime minister and Javad Zarif as his foreign minister, he created a pathway to establishing relations with the United States. In this sense, he gave his blessing to diplomatic engagement with America.
The simultaneous fulfillment of the Iranian nuclear agreement with the United States and the victory of Iraqi forces were expected by few, but they have come together as an omen of the normalization of Iran as an international actor, and of better prospects for Iraq, for Syria, and even for the wider Middle East, with the curbing of nuclear proliferation.
After an especially bleak period in the history of the region, cautious optimism for the new year might not be misplaced. Now that the nuclear deal is becoming a reality and Iran’s assets may soon be unfrozen, there is reason to hope for better relations between Iran and the United States and for a successful if tacit collaboration between the two countries in routing the Islamic State.
R.K. Ramazani is the Edward R. Stettinius Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia. His latest book is "Independence without Freedom: Iran's Foreign Policy."
About the autor: Holder of the Thomas Jefferson Award and coeditor of two books on Jeffersonian ideas and the contemporary world, R.K. Ramazani serves on the advisory board of Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello and is the Edward R. Stettinius emeritus professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia.
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